Seiji Horibuchi: Japanese culture on U.S. shores

As founder of Viz Media, one of the largest Japanese entertainment companies based in the United States, Seiji Horibuchi is obligated to keep close tabs on the two countries’ latest pop-culture movements.

The constant immersion in consumer demographics and trends is a far cry from the nomadic routine Horibuchi embraced when he first moved to California.

“When I came to America, I was obsessed with the California lifestyle of the ’60s,” said Horibuchi, who moved to the Bay Area in 1975 from his native Japan. “I basically came here, moved out to the mountains and became a hippie.”

Feeding off the vibe of Joplin and Hendrix, Horibuchi lived free and easy for several years before an encounter with Masahiro Ohga, president of Japanese media company Shogakukan Inc., helped lay the foundation for what became Viz Media.

“I knew Mr. Ohga through an acquaintance and I began talking to him about how the states lacked a major provider of Japanese pop culture,” said Horibuchi, who now runs the Viz Media office at 295 Bay Street. “Most Japanese entertainment culture in America dealt with samurai or horror films. I wanted to start something different.”

Ohga was impressed enough with Horibuchi’s vision to offer him $200,000 in startup capital. From there, Viz Media was born, specializing in anime and manga — forms of graphic art entertainment that Japanese culture helped incubate.

Since its birth in 1986, the company has endured an up-and-down entertainment market, surviving the comic-book crash of the late ’80s and thriving off the Pokemon mania of the late ’90s. Through it all, Horibuchi has helped steadily build the company, which now totals 160 employees and offers several different avenues of entertainment, from live-action movies to graphic-arts novels and Japanese pop-culture magazines.

Horibuchi is in the midst of his most ambitious Viz Media project yet — a 150-seat art-house movie theater to be located in the J-Pop Center, the ambitious entertainment complex slated to open its doors next winter in the heart of Japantown.

With the movie theater, Horibuchi will add one more accomplishment toa career defined by his steady refusal to follow the leader.

“Growing up in Japan and going to school in Tokyo, I was always expected to be a ‘salaryman,’ someone who gets a normal job,” said Horibuchi. “I never wanted that lifestyle. With Viz, I feel like I’ve accomplished so much more.”

wreisman@examiner.com

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